We are standing at the precipice of major retail transformation. An industry that built itself in the bricks and mortar realm of personal interaction is increasingly catered to online without even leaving your home.
As we march relentlessly towards what experts are calling the fourth industrial revolution, that experience is set to change even further, delivering us a fully immersive retail experience that predicts our needs, satiates our curiosity, and allows us unprecedented product experience and immediate fulfilment without even visiting a store.
Not so long ago retail was about stock held on the premises that consumers could touch, feel and ultimately buy, but the future of shopping will be far removed from a physical outing. Instead, virtual and augmented reality will allow consumer access to a world of products from the comfort of their homes.
By slipping on a headset, the consumer will not only be able to see how a product works but interact with it in realistic surrounds. They will have the opportunity to browse, select and experience a showroom’s worth of items from the virtual shopping mall of their couch.
Forward thinking report The Future of Shopping notes virtual reality will take ‘inspirational’ stores and flagship ‘experiences’ to the next level.
“Consumers will be totally immersed in an experience – through VR you can try on a pair of jeans without getting changed, learn the provenance of your hot chocolate by visiting the cocoa farm the beans were sourced from and even test drive a new car without leaving the showroom.”
For retailers, it will open a world of opportunity in the way consumers interact with their brand. Storytelling will no longer be confined to the imagination of their customer. Retailers will be able to place them within an ideal setting, revealing the ethos, history and feel of their entire desired experience.
Forbes explains: “[VR enables you to] bring the catalogue and rooms to life. Putting people in the center of environments makes e-commerce more immersive, and will have a big impact on selling bigger items like furniture, as it will give them the confidence to purchase.”
Statista predicts VR users will reach 171 million users by 2018, making this a technology retail is starting to implement now.
“Virtual reality is very hot at the moment, and that could change or completely disrupt the retail industry over the next 10 or 15 years,” Guillaume Charny-Brunet of Space 10 tells Forbes. “Once this technology is acceptable, a whole world of possibility opens up to retailers, and many other industries, to reinvent the way we used to do business.”
But shopping won’t be aimless wandering through a virtual world. On hand will be virtual sales assistance, chatbots and artificial intelligence navigating the consumer through a personal and curated experience.
The algorithms used by artificial intelligence to predict shopper needs and searches are already working hard behind the scenes, and their capability is only set to increase in the coming years. This allows retailers unprecedented access to consumer’s habits, trends and requirements, drawing on social media, weather predictions, location and previous behaviour.
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Ultimately this will create the curated shopping experience, and interacting with the consumer will be chatbots and virtual assistants. Ultimately in the not too distant future making a purchase could be as simple as asking your smart home’s voice assistant what couch would look best in your loungeroom.
TechCrunch explains virtual assistants and chatbots have the capability to change the entire consumer experience of a brand.
“They have the potential to create a pleasant experience for the user, one that is directed at identifying exactly what best suits their needs, while promoting the brand identity through the chatbot persona itself.”
Meanwhile A Medium Corporation notes visual search terms are another way AI is altering retail. Pinterest has already introduced a search tool that lets you zoom in on images to find more similar items, while ShopBot on FaceBook allows users to search eBay. In the future chances are if you see it and like it, whether that’s in virtual reality, a film or the real world, you will have the tools at your disposal to find it and buy it right now.
The world of payments has already beyond comprehension in recent years, but the future of retail sees this process become seamless as consumers effortlessly select their wares and pay.
Trailblazers like AmazonGo are leading the charge, setting up a completely checkout free shopping experience at their new flagship store in Seattle.
Fortune explains the retailer instead relies on mobile technology with consumers scanning their smartphone and utilising a downloaded app to shop within the store.
“…the company’s “just walk out” technology will detect when products are taken off shelves (or returned to shelves) and keeps track of what is in your virtual cart through these smartphones. When a shopper is done shopping, he or she leaves the store, and the company will charge the Amazon.com account.”
Meanwhile, for others retailers looking to maintain a presence in the bricks and mortar world, the mobile Point of Sale will be, and to an extent already is, the key to consumer engagement. These mobile kiosks, available to either staff, consumers or both, will work in conjunction with beacons, mobile apps, instore virtual reality, and AI furnishing the retailer with better consumer insight, stock management, trend-tapping and more.
“Stores must now encompass both worlds – the sensory experience generally available in the physical world, such as touching and feeling merchandise and personally interacting with a knowledgeable associate, married with the unique and personalized shopping experience common to the digital world,” Boston Retail Partners explain in their report on “POS/Consumer Engagement”.
Amazon delivery drones
But consumers won’t just seek to experience a brand, find their product with ease and then commit to buy. The era of instant gratification is set to be well and truly catered for in the e-commerce landscape of the future. Shoppers will want their product now, and the likelihood is this will happen through drones and robot vans.
Last year 7-eleven made history with a pilot program that saw 77 deliveries in Reno completed by drone. Meanwhile, Amazon has committed to an air delivery service entitled Amazon Prime Air.
Designed to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles, Amazon says: “Prime Air has great potential to enhance the services we already provide to millions of customers by providing rapid parcel delivery that will also increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system”.
At present Amazon is conducting trials in the UK, but also has development centres in the US, Austria, and Israel.
With the Future of Shopping report predicting drones will deliver more than $127B worth of economic activity by 2020, they state: “In the not too distant future, drones will become synonymous with home and office delivery. Next-day delivery will seem old fashioned when autonomous delivery vans pull up outside our houses or drones land in our gardens just a few minutes after ordering our goods.”
This immediate delivery won’t just be confined to the air, however. A recent report by Barclays that was profiled by CNBC notes already Amazon uses Kiva robots to fulfil orders in their traditional warehouses but could improve service further by utilising them along with robot vans.
“In particular, the research note said Amazon could use “robot vans” in urban markets given the proximity of the AmazonFresh fulfillment centers and the Prime Now drop-off area.”
The final word
The ever-changing world of e-commerce is opening up a wealth of exciting new opportunities for retail. It will be a futuristic game played within shifting goal posts of a personalized, immersive arena where the products that you experience and buy in a virtual world will be delivered by robots and drones to your very real door. The key for retailers will be keeping up with a new era that evolves as swiftly as it rolls out.